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Nearer to Heaven: The Shrine to the Sea-Goddess Mazu in Coloane

Statue of Mazu, Coloane, Macau

Statue of Mazu, Coloane, Macau

Statue of Mazu, Coloane, Macau

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  • Image © 2011 Walter Mason

If you've ever taken the bus out to Coloane, the sleepy and quite romantic fishing village outside Macau, you can't help but notice the monolithic statue of Mazu standing high on a hill. Her presence is mysterious and quite affecting, up on her distant hill, and getting to her can be quite a challenge if you don't speak any Cantonese.

A local bus will (hopefully) drop you at the foot of her holy mountain, where you wait for a second bus provided by the charitable association that built and maintains the temple and shrine. Unless you are particularly fit I wouldn't recommend you climb up, as it is quite a distance and, if you have faith, the bus will run every tweny minutes or so. 

The statue itself is an extraordinary thing, smaller than you'd expect it to be, especially when you consider how very visible it is for miles away. Mazu is rendered in a stocky, oddly brutalist style, reminiscent more of the socialist realism of China's recent past than the usual ethereal femininity of traditional Chinese religious art. But then, she probably was never meant to be inspected up close, and her substantial lines manage to convey an image of mystical power out across the island of Coloane. 

Of course, the worship of the sea goddess Mazu is perhaps the most apparent manifestation of popular religion in Macau. Shrines to her can be found across the islands. As a figure of worship she is a close cousin to Tin Hau, more commonly worshipped in nearby Hong Kong. The southern Chinese also conflated her image with that of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and so the iconography of the three figures is very close, and can often be confused, even by the faithful. 

The temple complex surrounding the statue is new, well-designed and clean, having been completed as recently as 2003. It is also noticeably empty on most days, and one wonders why such an optimistic and grand structure was built in such an out of the way place. Did the original donors hope for a religious community to grow up there dedicated to the Goddess? Perhaps it will happen, but for now, if you go on a weekday, you will find the place largely deserted, populated by a handful of elderly staffers and volunteers.  

Peaceful and impressively stolid on her hilltop retreat, the Sea Goddess Mazu scrapes heaven with her chiselled head, and is well worth a visit, especially on a chilly and windy Macau morning when the elements seem to favour her.

Published on 5/4/11

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